RAW’s expanding footprint ruffles feathers

The vigilantism of India’s spy agency has intensified in PM Modi’s time

PM Modi with Ajit Doval (file photo)
PM Modi with Ajit Doval (file photo)

Girish Linganna

India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is facing increased scrutiny due to growing claims of its international operations, including alleged assassinations and meddling in foreign affairs during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office. Experts believe that, during Modi’s decade in office, India’s capability of gathering intelligence overseas has greatly improved. This follows a significant boost in resources and operational freedom of RAW.

Over the past 10 years, the partnership of Narendra Modi and national security adviser Ajit Doval has expanded funding and operational capabilities for RAW, enhancing the agency’s role, compared to the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, a professor of criminology at the University of Hull in Britain, and an expert on Indian intelligence, spoke about these developments with South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Paramesha noted that RAW’s recent international activities were not entirely new, as previous Indian administrations had also focused on enhancing the nation’s intelligence capabilities. He mentioned that, under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, the scale of intelligence operations was comparable, indicating that the current mandate had not changed drastically.

However, as India’s foreign policy ambitions have grown, so have the objectives of its intelligence efforts. Recent controversial claims about RAW’s operations abroad have focused increased attention on the agency.

On 29 April 2024, the Washington Post revealed that an Indian intelligence officer was implicated in a thwarted attempt to kill Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the US in 2023. This plan was allegedly sanctioned by then RAW chief Samant Goel, who reported directly to the prime minister.

The Indian government staunchly denied the allegations, labelling them as “unwarranted and unsubstantiated”. On 4 April, the Guardian reported that the Indian government had adopted a policy of targeting individuals it deemed adversaries.

The report discussed new allegations connecting India to nearly 20 assassinations since 2020, executed by unidentified gunmen in Pakistan. These were the first instances where Indian intelligence officials openly spoke about supposed operations in Pakistan, with documents that surfaced directly implicating RAW in these killings.

The report also highlighted that Sikh separatists involved in the Khalistani movement were targets within these operations — both in Pakistan and in Western countries. The Pakistani authorities believe these killings were coordinated by Indian intelligence sleeper cells that were primarily based in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2023, there was a notable increase in such incidents, attributed to these cells’ heightened activities. Allegedly, these cells engaged local criminals, or economically disadvantaged Pakistanis, offering substantial sums to execute these assassinations. Moreover, Indian agents were accused of enlisting jihadists to perform these hits by misleading them into thinking they were eliminating ‘infidels’.

Australian news sources have stated that Canberra deported two individuals from India accused of trying to access confidential details regarding defence initiatives, airport security and trade ties. These reports also mentioned surveillance of the Indian community in Australia and interactions with active and former politicians.

Although the Australian authorities have not verified the nationalities of those deported or provided further information, they have recognised that such an event occurred. The Indian government has denied these claims as “baseless”.

RAW influence across Asia and beyond

RAW is viewed with suspicion in South Asia, with its influence causing concern among neighbouring nations. Observers note that since Modi’s tenure began, the accusations against RAW’s activities have intensified. In 2018, the then Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena claimed RAW was behind a plot to assassinate him, which strained relations between Sri Lanka and India. Nepal pointed fingers at RAW in 2020, accusing it of interfering in its political matters. Meanwhile, Pakistan, India’s longtime adversary, consistently accuses Indian agents of working to “undermine its stability”.

Paramesha noted that the effectiveness of RAW’s operations hinges significantly on the determination and power of India’s political leaders. In his book India’s Intelligence Culture and Strategic Surprises: Spying for South Block, he indicates how Indian foreign intelligence has organically evolved without a formal charter, shaping its functions in reaction to perceived threats.

Established in 1968 after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, RAW was created to address threats from China and Pakistan. Over time, its role has expanded, with intelligence data increasingly influencing India’s foreign policy decisions.

Much like the CIA in the US and Mossad in Israel, top RAW officials report directly to the nation’s highest leaders. According to former RAW chiefs and independent experts, the agency has been crucial in pivotal moments of India’s history, including the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi and the development of India’s indigenous nuclear programme. Paramesha pointed out that Indian leaders — such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi — had actively engaged with RAW, while others had been less involved.

A former RAW officer preferring anonymity, mentioned that the past decade had seen a deliberate effort by the government to enhance RAW’s role, aiming to position India as a major global player.

Despite the Modi government’s ambitious approach to external intelligence, the agency faces challenges, such as being understaffed and lacking essential resources. However, there is a clear intent to improve or, at least, the appearance of a significant upgrade, according to the officer. So far, India’s intelligence capabilities have been deemed sufficient for the nation’s needs.

However, as India’s international stature grows, there will be a need to enhance these capabilities to meet both present and future challenges.

Details about RAW, including its staff numbers and budget, remain highly confidential. In recent years, Indian intelligence has focused on targeting radicals that support Kashmiri independence and Khalistani separatism, both of which are particularly delicate matters for New Delhi.

There have been allegations that Indian operatives conducted targeted assassinations over the years in countries such as the UK, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A recent incident in Canada, involving the killing of separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Vancouver, escalated tensions between Ottawa and New Delhi. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed in Parliament that Indian agents were responsible, a charge that New Delhi has consistently denied.

Harsh V. Pant, vice-president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, told SCMP that it was a natural progression for India’s spy network and intelligence activities to expand as the nation’s global stature grows. India’s expanding role on the global stage naturally leads to increased intelligence and espionage activities, which should be expected, given its rising prominence, remarked Pant.

He also noted that the differing perceptions between India and Western countries were likely to persist in media portrayals due to India’s growing engagement in international matters. This conflict reflects a wider debate on how India seeks to safeguard its interests and demonstrate its capability to do so.

The author is a defence and aerospace analyst. Courtesy: IPA Service

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